Thursday, January 10, 2013

Looking for St. Utopia's Church

Borrowed from another blog:

Here's what St. Utopia's looks like: it has a vibrant, good-looking pastor who, like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way. They have a terrific youth ministry; worship is either a sublime liturgy or a terrifically relevant blend of hip-hop, youth culture, and Hollywood [depending upon your taste]. They minister to the poor; they've got a wonderful outreach program. They have mission trips to the developing world. The "welcome team" makes everyone feel at home with gracious grins and soothing smiles.

It's a growing church. The fellowship and the friendship seem so real—so caring—so loving. They've gathered lots of people who have shopped around for the perfect church and settled at St. Utopia's. It's just what church should be right?

Both clergy and laity are tempted by the vision of a St. Utopia out there.  For clergy, it is the promise of a parish where all the people show up every service, where there are limitless and well equipped volunteers for every task, where money comes in abundance, and where the staff work together in loving relationships where support for others trumps personal glory.  I personally know some Pastors who have hopped from congregation to congregation in search of St. Utopia's.  We have all heard the complaints that seem to arise from every parish these folks serve.  But they are not the only sinners -- they are merely more obvious in their sin.  The rest of us desire and think about St. Utopia's even if we know better than to speak much about it out loud.  In either case, God knows the desire of our hearts.

For laity the temptation shows up in the search for a Pastor who visits and is always found available in his study while making constant calls upon the sick and suffering, grieving and dying.  They want a congregation that is small enough to be an extended family of people but big enough to do what small denominations do with respect to youth ministry, programs for every age, and facilities for every purpose.  We have all met these folks who have nothing but bad things to say about the last place they were members and move around in the constant pursuit of a "real" church that will be all that they want it to be.  But under the radar the rest of the people in the pews have their own secret desires for a congregation in which money were not talked about, programs were effective, and the ambiance of success was absolutely contagious.

We all live with these "what if" realities and, perhaps, they are okay as dreams.  But as soon as we let these dreams become the pursuit of our lives, we are in dangerous territory.  The cause of Pastor and people is not the perfect church.  If it were, as they used to say, you would not be allowed in.  Even more to the point, when we spend our whole time lamenting what is wrong, we fail to see the work of God in our midst.  As much as we yearn for a perfect church, God, in His generosity and mercy has always worked among imperfect people and structures to do His perfect will.  That is the great mystery of grace.  There is not one of us who would entrust the Church to such fragile structures and such flawed people.  You know the old saying, "If you want it done right, do it yourself..."  But God knows nothing of this wisdom.  He does for us what we cannot do (salvation) and calls us as His own to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom, doing the works of Him who has called us from darkness into His marvelous light.

I will admit that too much of my nearly 33 years in two parishes has been spent wishing for things that were not here or wishing away problems that I thought could not be solved or wishing for more of this or less of that.  It has gotten me nowhere.  There is a lesson in the long pastorate.  You work with what you have.  You meet the people where they are.  You deliver to them the means of grace.  You trust that what God has begun, He will bring to completion on the day of our Lord's coming.  That is enough.

We have lost too many people who found out the people of our parish were flawed people, sinners whose sins were obvious, and failures at the perfect righteousness good enough to impress anyone on earth or God in heaven.  In the end, they lost as well.  Discontent breeds only discontent.  Dissatisfaction that shows itself in complaint leads only to misery -- a misery in which we are far too comfortable.  It is always easier to complain about what is wrong than to work for what is good, right, true, noble, beautiful, and of God.

We cannot afford to be satisfied with plaster saints or a Disneyland church.  We cannot afford to wait for the perfect to come along.  Remember that utopia means nowhere.  That is exactly where you will be if you wait for a St. Utopia to come along so that you can join its mutual admiration society. 

As we make out way into a New Year, we have to come to terms with the fact that here on earth there is no St. Utopia.  This parish and her clergy and lay live only in the imagination.  God is not there in the imaginary world of perfect parish, perfect Pastor, and perfect people.  God is here -- in the muck and the mire with His means of grace forgiving, restoring, renewing, and reclaiming what is His.  That includes you and me.  And we dare not forget it.

From the same blog:

What's the antidote? First of all, get your expectations right. Your church is filled with flawed people just like you. Expect more sinners than saints and you won't be disappointed. Expect your pastor to have blind spots, serious personality flaws and weaknesses. Expect him to have bad days, disappointments, communicate poorly, and be selfish. He's a work in progress too.

Secondly, don't expect your local church to be your everything. Get a life. It's great to worship every Sunday. . . It's great to say the Divine Office. . . all the devotions you like, but then remember to get up and get out into the world. Religion is there to help you a shining witness in the world, not just a refuge from the world. If your church experience is too warm and cozy you might be tempted to stay there. Don't.

Thirdly, don't play weird psychological games with your pastor or anybody else. Don't imagine that he's going to solve your problems for you. Don't imagine that he is your Daddy who is going to give you all the love you need. Maybe he's a great preacher or a good confessor or a wonderful social worker. Great. He's not the only one. Look past him to Christ for whom he stands. Don't pretend that he is either better than he is or worse than he is. Accept him and put up with him as much as you can; after all, he's trying hard to accept you and put up with you, and if you have a pastor who seems like God's golden boy—don't believe it.

Fourthly, if all that sounds cynical and suspicious and mean-spirited, it isn't. It's just being realistic. Learn to love the church and her people warts and all—like God does. Be solid and steadfast. Be loyal and loving. Be reliable and responsible. Be mature and hard working. Be prayerful and powerful. Love and laugh and serve and sing. Be [the child of God He has made you to be by baptism]... Live the gospel with joy.

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